Royal Enfield Custom Program - Democratising motorcycle art
Despite their basic definitions sounding similar, I believe that there is a thin line between modified motorcycles and custom builds. To me, the latter has more to it than just swapping parts and adding fancy wraps or paint jobs. Custom builds are like art forms that are born not out of a product catalogue but from an artist's imagination. And that is why, they often have a story to tell. These stories might be long or short, inspirational, emotional, or even devoid of any logic, but in the ambience of bikers, leather, beer and fuel fumes, they all sound great! Not to mention that every custom motorcycle is a conversation starter in itself.
With the world going crazy about retro-revival, and exotic motorcycle brands joining the fray with old-school designs kitted out with new age components, there is now a lot of fancy inventory available in the market that further blurs the line between modified motorcycles and bespoke pieces of art. Honestly, I'm no expert on custom builds, nor would I qualify as a connoisseur of art, but I do appreciate a fine set of wheels that can move and therefore this story. I went about looking on the internet for custom builds and for the purpose of this story, I chose the ones that not only made me go wow, but also made me crave for a ride astride those motorcycles (and for the pandemic to end!). Call this a glorified listicle if you will, but the common thread between all of these builds is that they use the Royal Enfield 650 platform as the donor. Why only the 650s, you ask? Because someday I hope to own a unique Continental GT 650, preferably customised either by myself or at least to my liking. But that is a story for another day.
RE's tryst with custom bike builders is an old one, but their new 650s are particularly attractive to the motorcycle artists around the world. Sure, they don't have the classic thump of an RE, but the new vertical twin engine has its own characteristic note that resonates with the charm of what a British twin should sound like. The exterior design of the engine itself, with the egg-shaped crank case, adds the right amount of visual bulk and retro styling cues. The chassis has enough room to play with, and is complemented by the simplicity of the cycle parts and the electronics used. Not to forget that for a Royal Enfield, the 650cc engine has a plenty of poke to give more premium alternatives a run for their money, and on that topic, it demands lesser money too. The sum of all these things make the RE 650s an excellent canvas for the motorcycle artists. So let me tell you about the builds that have appealed most to me, not necessarily in the order you see here though.
Neelkantha by TNT Motorcycles, India
While the name is inspired by the mythical lord Krishna from the Indian mythology, Neelkantha is an ode of the custom-built bagger choppers - replete with a 23-inch machined billet wheel up front, with ape hanger 'bars. It features the massive panniers that signify this body-style, but the highlight of the motorcycle is its air-suspension which allows a ground clearance adjustment range of 63.5-190.5mm. The Neelkantha surfaced at the 2019 RE Rider Mania and boasts of being the first custom built bagger atop the RE 650 platform.
Twins FT by Royal Enfield
Royal Enfield and Harris Performance have worked on many projects together, including the Mo' Powa' and Dirty Duck customs that kickstarted the RE Custom Program. Both the brands came together to build a Flat Tracker that was showcased at the 2019 EICMA. Though Harris has a chassis development experience spanning 40 years, this is their first go at a Flat Tracker. Flat tracking isn't a new concept but has been gaining a lot of popularity in recent times, which is why RE decided to build one. I like how chassis and under tail exhaust have been designed to ensure that the only this sticking out on either sides are the footpegs. Notice the tall seat and handlebar, and the absence of front brakes!
Rock Rod by K Speed, Thailand
This bobber from Thailand has to be one of the most unique builds atop the 650 platform and an apt example of the freedom of expression that differentiates custom builds from the rest. K Speed has transformed the Interceptor 650 into a piece of vintage-esque machinery. By integrating a suicide gear shifter, getting rid of the front brakes, and neatly routing the cables and hoses, K Speed has managed to achieve a minimalist and clutter-free design. The tiny tank, springer fork, short exhaust pipes and the discreet lighting elements make the engine appear beefier than it is and that lends this motorcycle its unique stance. Definitely look up the Rock Rod and listen to that exhaust note!
Gallinella by BAAK Motorcycles, France
In the 60s, Triumph decided to make their motorcycles more weather-proof by enclosing the rear wheel in a large fender that looked like an inverted bathtub. Thus was born the 'bathtub fairing' which never became a global trend, but was popular in Britain for its unreliable weather. Custom builder BAAK of France has been reviving this body style on many of their builds and they collaborated with RE to make one on the Interceptor 650. Called the Gallinella, this slick looking cruiser was revealed at the Wheels and Waves festival in 2019. With its old-school colour scheme, pinstripe detailing, brushed aluminium exhausts and a retro headlamp with an integrated speedometer assembly, BAAK has created a timeless cruiser that stands out for its simplicity.
Hooligan by Bulleteer Customs, India
I like half and half paint schemes, provided they are tastefully done - like Rossi's Sun and Moon for example which also spawned a limited YZF-R6, or the Icon Fire and Ice helmet design, to name a few. On similar lines, I like the Hooligan built by the Bulleteer Customs. Drawing inspiration from American law and order, its dark side shows off a "Serve and Protect" theme, while the white side celebrates hooliganism on two wheels! Apart from the two-tone theme, I particularly like the attention to detail - like the knuckle buster fashioned brake lever, the 'Hooligan' and 'Interceptor' tyre decals, the scrambler fashioned pipes and a dual tone theme for the engine too - chromed on the white side and blacked out on the dark side!
Malle Rally Royale
Look up the Malle Mile - it is a very interesting "If you arrive here, you have to race!" kind of whacky dirt racing event organised by the blokes who make the Malle motorcycle accessories and luggage systems. The same blokes also organise The Great Malle Rally which takes a wild 2,000km route from the southern tip of England to the northern tip of Scotland. All the marshals and support crew travel along with the participants on this five day journey, and the Malle Rally Royale twins were born out the idea of providing do-it-all motorcycles for this rally support crew.
To build them, Malle looked at the likes of Dakar rally motorcycles and safari Porsches - which explains the crude yet purposeful design. There's long travel suspension from a KTM Dakar racer, a massive bash plate engineered by Harris Performance, my favourite Heidenau K60 knobby tyres, PIAA LED auxiliary lights for headlamps, taillight and fog lamps, and luggage systems from Malle's own catalogue. The most interesting detail is in the paint jobs, which feature relief maps of the Applecross and Hardknott Passes from the rally route on red and black bikes respectively, as a homage to the most beautiful riding roads on the Malle Rally route. We hope that this custom build inspires RE to build a Himalayan 650 production motorcycle.
The Prime Project by Zeus Motorcycles, Thailand
The Prime is easy to fall in love with if you are into minimalist designs. The unibody construction for the tank and seat is remarkable and wisely envelopes the battery too, allowing an empty area under the seat to show off the two exhaust pipes. We don't know what these pipes will do to your thighs, but this is clearly not a motorcycle to be ridden in traffic. What it is is a piece of ornamentation that one would want to park in their living room and show off the intricate detailing like the vintage speedometer by Motogadget or the bespoke switchgear for example.
The Lock Stock and the Bonneville Salt Track Racer
Around the time RE launched the 650 Twins, they built a drag-racer concept called the Lock Stock in collaboration with S&S Cycles. It uses the 650cc engine, albeit modified for higher performance and an output of around 100PS/84Nm, and fixed in a different frame that is lighter and allows a longer wheelbase and race spec cycle parts for high-speed stability and safety. Then there's the nitrous-oxide induction which pushes the performance envelope further. The build debuted with a brilliant test run at the Sultans of Sprint 'Sprint Freak Class' during Glemseck 101, but during the race a hiccup with the quick shifter dampened the result that RE was hoping for at the drags.
The team fine-tuned the Lock Stock project further and created the Bonneville Salt Track Racer to participate in the naturally-aspirated twin-cylinder 600-750cc class at the Bonneville Salt Flats. With the young, talented and multiple record-holding Cayla Rivas at the handlebars of this custom, the team broke the previous record of 100.1mph (~160kmph) in the first run itself! Not stopping at the feat, the team made 20 more runs through the speed week to finally achieve a record of 157.053mph (~214kmph)!
Two Smoking Barrels by Sinroja Motorcycles, UK
Leicestershire based Indian brothers Rahul and Birju Sinroja have be crafting some beautiful custom motorcycles on various platforms. Two Smoking Barrels is their third Royal Enfield project and in intent, it is a follow up to the RE-built Lock Stock. While Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels are names inspired by a Brit cult flick, the project revolves around speed and performance. This build presents a very different perspective and treads right on that thin line I mentioned between a kitted motorcycle and a custom build. What you see here was built with drag racing in mind and therefore the Continental GT 650 donor has undergone everything from powertrain mods like a capacity increase to 750cc, new cams, injectors, and ECU, to a massive weight loss program comprising of a smaller tank, lightweight forks, lighter materials for the bolts and nuts even, a revised chassis and a hard tail that ditches the heavy rear suspension. Sinroja also neatly tucked in a nitrous injection system for additional boost, which helped this piece of art race to a fourth place finish at the Sultans of Sprint dash.
Midas Royal by Rough Crafts, Taiwan
Rough Crafts has really pushed the envelope with the Midas Royale. Winston Yeh, the artist behind the build, has collaborated with some of the finest fabricators in Taiwan to create a detailed build fit for a king. It builds on RE's iconic black and gold theme and makes generous use of carbonfibre for the blacks. The bodywork is made of multiple pieces put together to form a seamless flow from head to tail, which adds a sense of speed to the form. And then there are those exhaust pipes, which uses multiple small pieces welded together to arc a clean curve from the header to the integrated SC-Project mufflers. The Midas Royal is suspended from top-spec Ohlins units front and back, and stands on lightweight carbon wheels and sticky rubber. It is one of those machines that you ride to its limits when you are onboard, and polish the bugs off of it when you get off.
While I said there is no particular order to the builds we have spoken about here, I had to save the best for last. RE and Rough Crafts revealed the Midas Royal at the 2018 EICMA and ever since I have seen it, I have wanted to make it mine. To me it is the ultimate build on the 650 platform so far - top drawer equipment integrated tastefully in a beautiful custom form, finished with exquisite materials and intricate attention to detail.
Each of these builds present the RE 650s in a different light, showcasing different ideas and varied approach. While the 650 platform from RE isn't the only one of its kind to enable all of this, its potential to lure new artists and bike builders to this fascinating community, is what sets it apart. As we wait eagerly for this pandemic to end, I'm sure the lockdown is brewing more ideas and art that is waiting to push the custom scene even further.
Royal Enfield Custom Program
Royal Enfield has been doing its part in fuelling the custom building scene. In 2016, as the 650 project started taking shape, Royal Enfield started the Custom Program under which it started collaborating with motorcycle artists around the globe. The RE Custom Program kicked off with two in-house builds - the Mo' Powa' and the Dirty Duck. The Mo' Powa is based on the Classic 500 with an extended wheelbase and lowered stance, and a turbocharger mated to the single-cylinder engine. It looked like RE was building an off-road drag machine with this one, throwing in knobby tyres too. The Dirty Duck is the more off-road focussed build though which ha "go anywhere" written all over its attitude. To that effect it even had a Defender-challenging snorkel sticking out of the airbox, a big bash plate, the blockiest tyres RE could find at the time in the form of the TXC80s, and a straight-through exhaust pipe allowing the loudest thump that RE would ever sign-off.
The RE Mo Powa
The RE Dirty Duck
From these two motorcycles, which looked like after-hour projects, to about thirty beautiful pieces of art that have emerged out of the initiative, the RE Custom Program has come a long way, and it doesn't stop here. By collaborating with custom builders from India, South East Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas, the Program has been widening its footprint and its roots even deeper. Apart from the collaborating with bike builders, the RE Custom Program has also collaborated with motor shows and relatable institutions to host custom bike build-offs which paves the way for newcomers to the scene of expressing their art through motorcycles.